Pretty Vacant

New Times' panel of critics searches for musical gems in a disheartening 2001

If 2001 was a maddening, schizophrenic year for America, that goes double for the music that bubbled to the surface in the last 12 months.

For most of the year, bland frivolity and mindless chest-thumping ruled the airwaves. Then, as the World Trade Center went down in a monumental pile of rubble, self-centered pop stars suddenly found ethics and a political conscience. It was hard to tell which side of this coin was more distasteful and phony. The image of J. Lo revving up that posterior-powered choreography, and mustering up fake empathy for the American troops -- as long as those MTV cameras were faithfully documenting it for a concert special -- was a sad reminder of all those self-aggrandizing Bob Hope Christmases in Vietnam. What about doing something truly charitable, as in not milking it to plug your latest triple-platinum piece of crap?

But if nothing else, the traumatic political and social shakeups of recent months may render some of the more manufactured, adolescent-geared pop music obsolete. There's a theory that in tough times, people seek to escape (certainly, if you look at the Busby Berkeley musicals of the Great Depression, or the frothy fare that filled German movie theaters during World War II, there's a precedent for it). But the pop moppets and nymphets who've ruled MTV in recent years were already in danger of exceeding their expiration dates before September 11, and now they don't just seem plastic and manipulative. There's an additional whiff of the sadly passé about them, the same odor you got from Gary Lewis or Frankie Valli in the psychedelic late '60s.

Austin trio Spoon came of age with its 2001 release.
Austin trio Spoon came of age with its 2001 release.

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What the last few months of 2001 hinted at -- and it was just a hint, mind you -- was a possible closing of the huge disconnect between popular tastes and what seems truly relevant. Catching The Strokes or Ryan Adams in semi-not-too-infrequent rotation on MTV or seeing Jimmy Eat World crack TRL, you got the feeling that something might be stirring.

No more fitting example of how inadequate and empty Britney, 'N SYNC, Mandy, Willa and Jessica are could be found than the first weekend after the terrorist attack. VH1 continually aired a video incorporating footage of a grieving New York, backed by Jeff Buckley's recording of "Hallelujah." MTV pulled a clip of Bob Marley's "One Love" out of mothballs. It was a de facto admission, by both networks, that their own playlists were so short of emotional sustenance that they had to turn to dead artists whom they've consistently ignored to find the right tone for the moment.

Even at its best, pop music has always been a combination of crass commercialism and divine inspiration, and the crassness is often a big part of the fun. But when the balance gets out of whack, it can feel like you're being forced to eat chocolate doughnuts at gunpoint, 24 hours a day. The question that hovers over 2002 is whether the music will begin to reflect the times (with something other than knee-jerk patriotism) or whether the times will continue to succumb to the music.

Eric Waggoner:

We know, we know: It was a horrible year, a dreadful, teeth-grinding, blood-vomiting, migraine headache of a year. Every soulless R&B crooner; every moony-eyed, blond-haired, bubble-breasted warbler; every latter-day grunge knockoff; every NAMBLA-fetish boy band; every fake-ass crossover country poseur released a whole full-length goddamned album this year. It started in January with O-Town and ended in December with Destiny's Child receiving Artist of the Year props at the Billboard Music Awards. And how it did go on and on and on without surcease, until we found ourselves pleading Enough, enough! Gimme a fucking break here! to the cold universe.

You could be forgiven for crying uncle. God knows, it's a terrible world to live in.

But stay, faith. Despite the fact that we all got buried in the '01 Crap Rock mudslide, there were a few (what Rahsaan Kirk would call) bright moments that allowed us to retain a handle on our sanity. When the great roll is called, let the record show that we didn't lose all hope, even in these wearying days.

Keep alive, baby. Good times is coming round again.

1. Ramones, the remasters: I live in a tiny college town, 50 miles away from any urban center of size. In the alleyway next to the public library in this little hamlet, there's a peeling, faded piece of graffiti that reads "I know I'll go to heaven cause I served my time in hell"; and just above that, in a newer hand, is scrawled "JOEY RAMONE R.I.P." I like to imagine that both those pieces of graffiti were written by the same person, at the respective ages of, maybe, 13 and 39. I like thinking that the fucked-up rural kid who thought he deserved something better found it in The Ramones and Road to Ruin, which were remastered and rereleased last year by Rykodisc. I like thinking that maybe we all survived together. Rest in peace, Joey. We know you went to heaven.

2. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: The best album you were supposed to hear in 2001. Reprise declined to put out Jeff Tweedy and company's latest, declaring it too weird for radio. Since then, Wilco has signed with Nonesuch to release YHF in the spring of '02, but bootleg copies have been making the rounds for a few months. It's a stunning piece of work, and one of the best reasons to stick around for the new year.

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